Why you should care
Because marriage should be a refuge, not a scene from Gladiator.
Liam describes himself as a big bloke. In the same breath, the 45-year-old Irishman can recite the assaults he says he suffered at the hands of his soon-to-be ex-wife, from the sting of stab wounds to the crack of a cup catapulted at his skull.
Across the Emerald Isle, a growing number of male domestic-abuse victims are seeking succor and support, according to Amen Support Services, which is dedicated to male survivors of domestic violence. The organization, the only one in Ireland of its kind, received 6,600 “contacts” in 2014 — phone calls, emails, texts, posts, counseling and court accompaniment. That marks a 42 percent increase from 2010. Similar patterns are appearing in Commonwealth countries. Even as the U.K.’s overall rate of domestic violence has declined — by 27 percent over the past decade — more men are pointing the finger at their abusers: Convictions of female perpetrators more than quadrupled between 2004–05 and 2014–15. Meanwhile, in Australia, the rate of men reporting violence experienced at the hands of their partners since the age of 15 nearly doubled between 2005 and 2012.
“Up until very recently, everything around domestic abuse — the narrative around domestic abuse — was that it’s a crime carried out by men on women, and that narrative has now changed,” says Mark Brooks, chairman of the ManKind Initiative, a British charity that supports male victims of domestic violence. Brooks asserts that British police and local authorities are taking male victims more seriously than before.
The conversation surrounding intimate-partner violence is also changing shape. In late 2011, Ireland’s National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (Cosc) partnered with Amen to establish a national committee on violence against men. Amen also contributed to Cosc’s second national strategy, launched this January. Advocates for abused men strive not only to abolish the binary of male as predator and woman as prey, but also to expand the idea of what a victim looks like — which could be a driver behind the surge in men speaking up. “Our line is that domestic abuse can happen to any man, anywhere, from any background,” Brooks says. “We get calls from builders, from tradesmen, from manual workers as much as we get calls from doctors or bankers, solicitors, even police officers.”
I would say the police and the legal shift is far more advanced than it is for society in general.
Mark Brooks, chairman, ManKind Initiative
A cursory glance at the history of civil or LGBT rights confirms that legal or policy gains can far outpace large-scale societal acceptance. And in fact, even as male victims are gaining policy support, they face a kind of social skepticism about their claims. Within the walls of advocacy organizations, men are believed, “but when they go out into the big, broad world, not always, no,” says Niamh Farrell, Amen’s manager. “Which obviously is another barrier that’s frustrating.”
Take Liam, who is haunted by a 2009 incident in which he alleges his wife, from whom he has since separated, stabbed him 15 times. According to Liam, she’s countered that he’s injured himself. “My children haven’t wanted to know me,” Liam says. “They told me, ‘Mommies don’t tell lies, only daddies tell lies.’” Adds Brooks: “I would say the police and the legal shift is far more advanced than it is for society in general.”
How to support male victims of domestic abuse is another question. Given that the vast majority of domestic-abuse victims are women, some consider the push for gender-neutral domestic violence policies problematic. Domestic abuse is inherently gendered, argued Polly Neate, the head of Women’s Aid, a U.K. federation of more than 220 organizations advocating for female and child abuse victims, in a 2014 op-ed. In light of 2015 research indicating that official British crime figures grossly underestimated violent and sexual offenses against women, Neate argued for tailored responses for men — which should not be “at the expense of services for women and children, who make up the vast majority of high-risk cases and are the most likely to be killed.”
The figures we do have paint a wrenching picture. A 2014 European Union–wide survey revealed that 13 million women experienced physical violence in the year before the survey — equaling 7 percent of European women ages 18–74 — and 3.7 million experienced sexual violence in that time frame. These sorts of numbers illuminate why most initiatives and resources target women, notes Louise Crowley, a senior lecturer at Ireland’s University College Cork School of Law who organized a November 2015 domestic violence conference at UCC. The event centered on female victims and explored perpetrator programs — already fixtures in Australia and New Zealand — that help abusive men adjust their attitudes and behaviors. “I think it’s very unfair to say that less men are victims and so it’s less of an issue,” Crowley says. “I think we need to recognize the reality of both, but also the fact that women as victims are hugely more prevalent.”
That type of numbers-based thinking deeply troubles Liam. He references Ireland’s social worker booklet, which heavily emphasizes how many more women are victimized than men. “This is what the social worker learns from, this is her bible,” he says. “So what chance has a father got? What chance has a man got?”